We live in a world full of deadlines. There are yearly deadlines, like birthdays and New Year’s. Monthly deadlines, like paying rent and submitting expense reports. Weekly deadlines, like game night and putting the garbage out. Even daily deadlines, like starting work and pick kids up from daycare.
Most are such ordinary parts of regular life, they go by without even registering. I pay rent on the 1st, like I did last month, and the month before that, and every month before that. I put the trash out because it’s Sunday, just like last week, and the week before that, and so on. My alarm goes off, so I get out of bed and go to work.
The beginning scenes of the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy capture this aspect of modern life perfectly. In the bustling metropolis, the narrator explains, when the clock says seven-three-zero, you must leave your home and commute to work. When it says eight-zero-zero, everyone has to look busy. When it says ten-three-zero, you can stop looking busy for 15 minutes… then everyone has to look busy again.
The narrator contrasts that city life with the everyday experience of the traditionally hunter-gatherer San tribes in the Kalahari desert hundreds of miles away. They pay no mind to whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday because those details are irrelevant. Instead, what matters to them is the flow of the natural world. The beginning and end of the rain season, how to find water during the dry season, which plants are edible and nourishing, and where to build shelter from the elements.
What strikes me most about that juxtaposition is the stark difference between the manufactured order of civilization and the natural cadence of life on the planet. Both include deadlines in a sense, but they are of a very different sort. The natural world includes seasons, phases, and rhythms. The modern industrialized world not only includes many deadlines, it is built entirely around deadlines. Deadlines humans invented to support human-created systems.
One such example is our current tax system, which supports the other human-created systems of federal, state, and local governments. This week includes a major tax deadline: people who requested an extension to file their personal 2019 taxes earlier this year must now submit their completed forms by October 15th.
There are more than 140 million individual taxpayers in the US and most of those people have the same deadline: April 15th. In fact, it’s so rare for a person to have a tax year other than the calendar year that I couldn’t even find statistics about it. This means every February, March, and April tax accountants across the country work like machines in overdrive to file as many tax returns as possible by the deadline.
It’s horrendous, and there is no actual reason everybody needs to have the same tax deadline. For instance, we could have a rolling deadline determined by the last digit of the social security number (or something similar). If your number ends in a 1, 2, or 3, you file in April. If your number ends in a 4, 5, or 6, you have a July due date. 7, 8, and 9, you're up in October.
This would complicate some things like employer wage reporting or combining data for people with different due dates in the year they get married. But it would mean tax accountants could work a regular schedule year-round, instead of disappearing from their entire lives and reemerging 3 months later, under-slept and malnourished.
Computers are so involved in all the tax reporting processes, and we have so many smart and talented computer programmers in the world, there is undoubtedly a technological solution available. I’m sure the only reason programmers are not already working on this issue is because no one has asked them to solve it.
People generally like to solve problems. People generally like to work and create things. And most people want to be doing work that matters. Unfortunately, the societal systems we have designed require us all to constantly adapt our behavior to suit those systems. And people are not machines.
The incongruence between the societal systems we live our lives perpetuating and our natural human rhythms probably explains the very human phenomenon of procrastination (and my personal favorite: procrastaccomplishment). It’s truly amazing how many things I can get done while avoiding a deadline for something else. Deadlines are certainly one way to manufacture a reason to do work I otherwise wouldn’t do.
If many of these deadlines are set up just to keep us tending the great machines of our society, then they are serving those systems instead of the people who are theoretically supposed to benefit from the existence of those systems. If we didn’t have all these deadlines, maybe some things wouldn’t get done. Maybe some systems would fail. And maybe that would be a good thing. Their absence would create space for something else.
Instead of meeting all those deadlines, other work could get done. Work like: farming, building, innovating, learning, creating art, and storytelling. And we could do that work in a way that nurtures people, and creates and maintains community. Human beings are part of nature, no matter how separate we imagine ourselves to be. We should embrace seasons, phases, and rhythms and let go of so many deadlines.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.